Three Principles to Keep Privileged Kids from Becoming Jerks

Model behavior, spend time with those who struggle, and remember all are equal!

Posted Oct 22, 2013

The vast majority of healthy and loving parents want to do whatever they can to give their children a good life, have every advantage, and perhaps have opportunities that they may not have had themselves as a youth. As a parent of a high school senior myself I am amazed at the kind of quality life my son has experienced relative to my own as a youth. Who doesn’t want the very best for their kids? And who doesn't want to do all that they can to give their child every advantage in life?

Yet one of the unintended consequences of providing so much for your offspring is the risk that they will become entitled, demanding, narcissistic, and smug jerks! To make matters even worse, the classic fundamental attribution bias theory in psychology suggests that they may attribute their good fortune and success to their own efforts rather than the fact that they were lucky to be born into a family that had the motivation, interest, and means to provide them with so many helpful advantages. A lot of kids in America are, as they say, born on third base.

I recently had a patient in my clinical practice who was a very wealthy college student attending a very fancy university. He came from a remarkable background with all of the advantages money can buy. Yet, he wasn’t happy at all and had difficulty with many relationships. Much of his troubles were a by-product of believing that the world really did revolve around him and his desires. He would be enraged when his needs and wants were not met...and showed it! This style didn’t go over so well with others as you might imagine. Sadly, this example is all too common today.

So, what can loving parents do? There are no easy answers but perhaps keeping these three principles in mind are critical in raising kids with privilege.

1. Model behavior that you want in your child.

Social cognition and observational learning theory research clearly informs us that people watch models and then imitate them. From the time our children are very young they observe the behavior around them (especially those of parents and other important figures) and "go and do likewise." So, how you behave in the world really matters with deeds speaking much louder than words. If you want your children to treat others with compassion and kindness then you need to model this behavior for them at all times...that's right ALL times; if you don't want your child to act like a demanding and entitled jerk, then don't you ever behave that way either...period!

2. All men (and women) are created equal. Use this phrase from the Declaration of

Independence as a mantra! Regardless of status in life, financial and other resources, education, titles, and career directions do all that you can to remind yourself and others that all men (and women) are created equal….yes, everyone...even those you don't like very much! So, whenever your child says something that suggests that they are better than someone else it is very important to provide loving but corrective and immediate feedback that they are wrong! Sure, some people are blessed with great gifts, talents, resources, beauty, intelligence, athletic prowess, and so forth but that doesn’t make anyone "better" than anyone else in terms of their humanity. The President of the United States and the homeless person struggling on the street are both human and created equal. As the Declaration of Independence states, "these truths are self-evident." 

3. Spend time with those who struggle. Spending time with those who struggle in terms of resources, disabilities, are poor, marginalized, homeless, prisoners, and so forth can certainly help us to not get so full of ourselves. Community service learning experiences, volunteerism, immersion trips, and so forth can help keep our egos in check and our feet firmly on the ground. Research in my lab here at Santa Clara University has found that volunteerism, communiIty based learning, and alternative spring break immersion trips make people more compassionate and help to lower their stress levels to boot! It is critical, however, that spending time with those who struggle must be done with solidarity in mind. Just trying to “help those less fortunate” than ourselves is really the wrong attitude. Coming together as equals in solidarity with mutual appreciation for each other is the attitude you want to nurture and maintain. Remember, solidarity is what you want, not charity.

There are no simple answers to prevent those with privilege from becoming jerks. But if you keep these three principles in mind, hopefully those with privilege can avoid the trap of entitlement and narcissism that so often awaits them.

So, what do you think?

Please check out my web site at and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante.

Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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